The historical article below is about Dominica’s Carnival and was originally published in Caribbean Compass * in February 2000.
Readers who might be interested in a personal review of my Carnival experiences quite a few years ago can click here. I assure you that while some time has passed since I wrote that review, my enjoyment of ‘Mas Domnik’ remains practically the same!
As for J’ouvert, Dominica’s Carnival Monday pre-daybreak festivity, you can see how I felt about my more recent revelry here.
My ongoing enjoyment of the Calypso competitions and other performances, which are held throughout the Carnival season is found here.
Dominica’s Carnival History
Dominica’s Carnival has always stressed spontaneity, plentiful merrymaking and friendly fun for everyone. The annual Mas (masquerade) is said to be a release of the spirit and pent-up tensions before Ash Wednesday. It’s a very big social event which attracts a huge number of people all over the island (estimated at about 70 per cent). As it is winter in northern countries, many tourists take advantage of the warm weather and the spectacles too!
Carnival celebrations on the Nature Island have been held for a very long time. Even before Emancipation in 1834, this grande fete was centred on the Catholic pre-Lenten festival and centuries-old African-European traditions. After Emancipation, it became an even bigger event. In the Dominican culture,’ playing Mas’ apparently focuses on reducing frustrations through revelry. The wearing of costumes, singing of calypso songs and dancing to pulsating rhythms are still predominant activities.
The economic benefits of Mas Domnik are constantly being enhanced. Every year, there is increased programming of events. A number of activities lead up to Carnival Monday (lundi mas) and Tuesday (mardi gras). The glamorous National Queen Show, Calypso Competitions and the Opening Ceremonies are very big draws every year and appeal to people of all ages. The Mr. Dominica Show, new this year (2012) was completely sold-out!
J’ouvert, the pre-dawn Carnival Monday attracts some organized bands and individuals who want to ‘do their own thing’. People can dress in any kind of costume, which may be made up from rags or old clothes. The revelers then join up with the organized groups, if they wish. Then T-shirt bands come out ‘on the road’ on Monday afternoon, accompanied by big trucks with hi-fi systems or popular local music bands. By late afternoon, the crowds overflow on the streets to party and dance into the evening.
Costumes can be very expensive to construct, but many talented people make a creative effort to add more colour and vibrancy to Carnival’s captivating ambience. Monday’s large popular T-shirt bands are a real splash of brilliance. ‘Flag Wavers’ are girls who have been instructed at school about marching. They are impressive with their well rehearsed performance. “Darkies’ – people who have historically painted and covered themselves in black – still adorn themselves with this type of disguise.
‘Sensay’ costumes have become even more sensational. As they were first constructed from burlap and rope in muted tones (some are still seen)the layers of cloth donned by other ‘sensay’ masqueraders are now exceptionally dazzling in bold tropical colours. This type of attire was once representative of African deities in spiritual ceremonies. Scary masks may be worn – some of them have horns in keeping with the original ritual. As a safety precaution, the wearing of masks presently requires a permit from the Dominica Festivals Committee (767) 448-4833. Some people really enjoy wearing this fascinating form of Carnival costume – even though it is very hot and heavy!
The Queen Show (aka Miss Dominica Pageant) and the Calypso Monarch (formerly King) Competition
In the mid 1960’s, organized events such as the Queen Show and the Calypso competition came to the forefront. However, the first formal Queen Show apparently took place around 1938, and the Calypso King (now Monarch) show originated in the late 1950’s. The calypso song has historically represented an opportunity to express societal problems and to speak out against oppression. The cleverly crafted lyrics draw attention to specific current events. Through this medium, people may be better informed about a perceived problem and perhaps do something about it. Some songs also celebrate certain situations. Verses are generally written with plenty of memorable puns, which entertain the listeners tremendously.
Lapo Kabwit (Goat Skin) Drummers, Bwa Bwa (Stiltwalkers) and Steel Pan Bands
While hi fi sound systems are prevalent on the road at Carnival time, lapo kabwit drummers have traditionally provided the background beat when people are reveling on the street. This legendary form of rhythm making is still popular with the people. It is sure to be seen (and heard) on J’ouvert mornings and in the Carnival Opening Parades. Young boys are taught to play the goat skin drum by their elders. Techniques for the skillful construction of this homemade instrument are passed down from generation to generation.
There are some recent Carnival revivals too, which include stilt walkers (called Bwa Bwa) and steel pan bands.
As well, popular Dominica bands perform aboard the roaming hi fi trucks for hours at a time , demonstrating tremendous stamina! Crowds surround the musicians and fill the streets “chipping and jumping” (moving and dancing) to the pulsating beat.
Dominica is proud of its original, traditional, fun-filled Carnival. In keeping with Dominica’s spontaneity, everyone is welcome to get involved in it, either as a spectator, a participant or both!
With its abundantly festive atmosphere, Mas Domnik remains a great way for citizens and visitors alike to thoroughly unwind and enjoy!
*This piece was written with the kind assistance of then Cultural Officer Mr. Daryl Phillip of the Cultural Division of Dominica. He is now a horticulturist and proprietor of Green Mountain Flowers near Giraudel, Dominica.
For further information about Dominica’s Carnival celebrations, consult:
www.lennoxhonychurch.com for Carnival history.